Election 2020

Dems in Philly are lining up to run for state office in 2020

The intraparty battles are starting early this year.

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Courtesy of Nikil Saval's campaign
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A new year, a new decade, a new day for political ruckus in Philadelphia.

Ready for some new representation in Harrisburg? Every member of the Pa. House is up for reelection in November, and there are 26 of them in the Philadelphia region — plus four Pa. Senate seats up for bid as well.

About a third of the region’s state representatives — overwhelmingly Democrats — look like they’ll face contested primaries, with challengers who’ve already declared or are rumored to be jumping in soon. Of the Philly-area state senators running for reelection next year (also Dems), one has already garnered a prospective rival.

While the commonwealth is considered a partisan battleground, the blue sea of Philadelphia is currently filled with intraparty battles. A surge of candidates inspired by Trump-era politics are gunning for the Democrats’ knighted players.

Some are running with a firm policy vision, observers note, while others seem to be running for the sake of shaking things up.

“One of the things you’re seeing now is not just people running against Trump Republicans, you’re seeing people energized to run for office, period,” said political consultant Mustafa Rashed.

Candidates still have to collect and submit petitions before they’re guaranteed to be on the ballot — and that process usually isn’t finalized until March. But an early start is always helpful.

Here are the primary rumblings we’ve heard about ahead of 2020.

A left for the Pennsylvania Senate 

Writer, ward leader and organizer Nikil Saval has officially launched his campaign for the First Senatorial District — a large swath of the city that has historically held great power in Harrisburg.

As Billy Penn reported, Saval, a co-founder of progressive outfit Reclaim Philadelphia, is running to take down incumbent state Sen. Larry Farnese, a Center City attorney who’s held the seat since 2009.

The other three state senators up for re-election — John Sabatina, Sharif Street and Vince Hughes — do not have any declared challengers yet. Few names have made the rounds as serious contenders for those races.

Longtime Northwest Philly lawmaker to retire? 

State Rep. Rosita Youngblood has presided over Northwest Philly’s 198th Legislative District since 1994. Three sources said Youngblood, 72, has been telling people she will not seek re-election to her 12th full term in office.

Youngblood told the Philadelphia Democratic delegation last year that this would be her final term, according to one source in the room at the time. She has yet to announce any formal plans. Youngblood, who also serves as secretary for the Pa. House Democratic Caucus, could not be reached for comment.

Sources also said Darisha Parker, who works for Youngblood, will run for the seat if her boss does step down. Reached by phone, Parker would neither confirm or deny her plans.

35-year West Philly lawmaker sees heat from newcomers

State Rep. James Roebuck Jr., who has represented the 188th District since 1985, has already accrued three prospective Democratic challengers.

Longtime criminal justice organizer Rick Krajewski is already well into his campaign for the West Philly district. Krajewski was an early ally of city District Attorney Larry Krasner and worked with progressive group Reclaim Philadelphia. His campaign will have a heavy focus on criminal justice reform at the state level.

Southwest Philly ward leader Gregory Benjamin declared his candidacy against Roebuck in October. Another prospective candidate, Kehinde Whetsone, has registered a fundraising page with a 188th District campaign logo on ActBlue, a political fundraising platform, but could not be located for comment.

River Wards freshman draws rivals with attorney, City Council staffer

It’s not just the old guard who are attracting challenges. First-term state Rep. Mary Isaacson, who represents the mostly-River Wards 175th District, already has three rivals on the horizon.

Longtime chief of staff to late Pa. Rep. Michael O’Brien, Isaacson came to office via a controversial special election after O’Brien retired because of health problems shortly after his nomination. Critics said that allowed ward leaders in his district to essentially handpick his replacement. (O’Brien died of a heart attack several months later.)

Isaacson looks to be facing a challenge from Democratic attorney Vanessa McGrath, who launched a campaign emphasizing her lack of ties to “any political dynasty.” There’s also Jeff Dempsey, who has worked for U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle and is program director at CeaseFire PA. Both already have launched campaigns.

A third challenge may come from within City Hall. Six sources tell Billy Penn that Andre Del Valle, an aide to City Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, is expected to announce his campaign for the 175th in the coming weeks.

Del Valle, who attended the PA Society political schmoozefest last weekend in NYC, recently changed his Instagram account handle to “Official Del Valle.” He declined to comment. Philadelphia’s “resign to run” rules mean municipal employees must quit as soon as they announce a campaign for public office.

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Just waiting on my moment

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North Philly’s Malcolm Kenyatta vs. his predecessor’s aide?

Another rookie lawmaker, state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, has also picked up a Democratic rival in his first re-election bid for the 181st District.

Charlotte Greer-Brown, a former aide to Kenyatta’s predecessor, state Rep. Curtis Thomas, has had a campaign Facebook page since September. She formally announced her candidacy a few weeks ago.

In a Facebook video posted Dec. 1, Greer-Brown touted her first endorsement — from Sheriff-elect Rochelle Bilal. Speaking to a small crowd, Greer-Brown also solicited donations via Cash App from the room.

“One dollar, two dollar, three dollar…ten dollar [donation],” Greer says on video, after giving out her account handle. “It all helps.”

Asked if she had formed a campaign account, Greer said she couldn’t take questions.

Under state election code, candidates need to register the committee within 20 days of collecting $250, according to election attorney Adam Bonin, who represents many elected officials in Pa.’s Democratic party.

“You’re receiving unauthorized money,” Bonin said. “Most candidates register right away to avoid any legal doubt about what they’re doing.”

Will Local 98 go after Jared Solomon? Plus rumors about Sims and Rabb

Several sources told Billy Penn that Local 98 has been scouting for a Democrat to run against state Rep. Jared Solomon in Northeast Philly.

The rumored vendetta has ties to the federal indictment against several leaders of the Local 98 International Brotherhood of Electricians union.

Solomon was one of the few elected officials in Philly to call for Councilmember Bobby Henon, who works a side gig for the union, to step down after being named in the federal indictment alongside labor leader John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty earlier this year.

Asked if Local 98 had been looking for challengers, spokesperson Frank Keel responded with “No comment.”

Bob Brady, the local Democratic party chairman, said he wouldn’t be surprised if somebody ran against Solomon, but that in his estimation it wouldn’t be a serious threat: “He’ll win,” Brady said.

In other ongoing political rivalries, will the politically powerful Northwest Coalition put up a candidate to pick off state Rep. Chris Rabb? Rabb and City Councilmember Cherelle Parker have had a yearslong political feud. Parker denied any knowledge of grooming a candidate on Thursday.

Meanwhile, state Rep. Brian Sims in Center City hasn’t faced a Democratic challenger since 2016. Sims unseated a 14-term incumbent back in 2012, and he’s rumored to have a new opponent this year — but it won’t be Ben Waxman.

Waxman, a consultant who until recently worked as communications director for District Attorney Krasner, ran against Sims in 2016. Waxman recently commissioned a poll about Sims’ prospects in the race, he acknowledged, and he decided he wouldn’t take another run next year.

Sims’ real prospective challenger is Marisa Shaaban, a Democratic committee person in the 5th Ward. A source who met with her said she is currently building a campaign against the three-term incumbent. Billy Penn reached out to Shaaban for comment.

Will Jewell Williams, dogged by lawsuits as sheriff, try a return to Harrisburg?

Several Democratic leaders said that outgoing Philadelphia Sheriff Jewell Williams has expressed interest in running for state representative in his old Northeast Philly district.

Williams, who was defeated in the May 2019 primary by Sheriff-elect Rochelle Bilal, represented the 197th District for over a decade before becoming sheriff in 2012. The legislative seat is currently held by state Rep. Danilo Burgos.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea,” Brady said of Williams’ rumored bid.

Williams faces a litany of sexual misconduct and workplace retaliation complaints. The local Democratic party took heat after it attempted to endorse Williams’ re-election bid for sheriff, and then reversed course.

Williams could not be reached for comment, and a spokesperson did not return a text requesting comment.

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